Black Memphis, Black History: The sadness and sound of Phineas Newborn, Jr.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Phineas Newborn's final resting place.

Memphis has no shortage of music legends in the genres of rock, blues, and soul, but many Memphians have never been introduced to the city's jazz heroes.

Meet Phineas Newborn, Jr. 

Jazz aficionados consider Newborn to be one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, to be counted besides giants like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.

Newborn began and ended his career in Memphis. He made his imprint on the jazz world by performing and recording with other titans of the art form, such as Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, and Philly Joe Jones.

Newborn was born in December 1931 in Whiteville, Tennessee, roughly 60 miles northeast of Memphis. His father and brother were also talented musicians, playing drums and guitar respectively, and his childhood home was rich with music. His father even owned a musical instrument store on Beale Street.

Newborn's first professional gig came in his teens as a member of the house band at the Plantation Inn Club in West Memphis, Arkansas. That band included his father, brother, and future legendary producer Willie Mitchell. They would continue to record together as studio musicians with Sun Studio on some of the studio’s earliest recordings.

Newborn performed at night and attended Booker T. Washington High School during the day. His musical genius was already evident, as he mastered trumpet and saxophone in addition to the piano. 

Newborn enrolled at Tennessee State University, then known as Tennessee A & I State University, in Nashville as a music major. He used the time to develop his technique and expand his classical repertoire. He moved back to Memphis in 1952 and continued his education at LeMoyne-Owen College.

At the time, higher learning was largely segregated with fewer opportunities for Black students. TSU and LeMoyne-Owen are two of six Tennessee HBCUs or historically Black colleges and universities that remain open today.

Count Basie Meets Newborn!
The great Count Basie was in Memphis in 1952 and happened to see Newborn perform. Basie was so impressed that he got word of Newborn to legendary music producer and jazz supporter John Hammond.

When Newborn finished a short stint in the U.S. Army, Hammond offered encouragement and connections that helped Newborn move to New York and begin performing. While there, he recorded his first album, "Here is Phineas." The album featured his brother, Calvin, on guitar; Oscar Pettiford on bass; and Kenny Clarke on drums.

It was so critically acclaimed and garnered Newborn so much international attention that he was invited to perform in Stockholm and Rome over the next two years.

Phineas Heads West
Newborn relocated to Los Angeles in 1960 and began the most prolific period of his career. He recorded a series of albums for the Contemporary record label, but these albums were not as critically acclaimed as his previous work.

Newborn suffered from an unnamed mental illness through much of his life and spent time in the 1960s in Camarillo State Mental Hospital, which also treated jazz icon Charlie Parker.

After his discharge, Newborn continued to record. He created works with John Coltrane's drummer, Elvin Jones, and the prolific bassist Ray Brown.

Newborn returned to Memphis in 1971 and tragedy followed him. His mental state continued to decline and he suffered several broken fingers during a mugging.

A Slow Decline
After a more than 10-year absence from music, Newborn began to perform in New York again in the mid-1970s for a second act of sorts. He was not in his prime, but his performances earned rave reviews in the New York Times. Over the next several years he went on to perform in the U.S. and abroad with other jazz greats such as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.

Despite his performances, Newborn never saw any major financial success and his health deteriorated for years until he died on May 26, 1989.

He was buried with honors in Memphis National Cemetery.

Jazz historian and writer Leonard Feather commented that, “In his prime, he was one of the three greatest jazz pianists of all time.” His album, "The Great Jazz Piano of Phineas Newborn, Jr.," is considered as some of the best in the genre.

Newborn’s financial struggles were said to be part of the impetus behind the founding of the Jazz Foundation of America, an organization that provides financial assistance to aging musicians.
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Read more articles by Chris Jones.

Chris Jones is an attorney, community and non-profit strategist, and freelance writer.  Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Chris has lived in Memphis for over 25 years.  In his spare time, he loves traveling, learning about history and society, and playing the guitar.